My Love Letter to Lisa Kudrow and The Comeback

Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish in HBO's The Comeback

Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish in HBO’s The Comeback

I’ll go ahead and say it upfront: I hate Lisa Kudrow. Or, I used to. I remember taking an internet market survey in the early 2000s, I believe, showing the trailer of a movie in which she was cast. I was asked repeatedly about what would make me go see this movie, and I kept pointing out that Lisa Kudrow being on it was a deal breaker for me. I remember being fairly adamant about it as well. Why so much animosity for her? One word: Friends. I remember liking her in Mad About You, but Friends soured me on her and all the actors on the show. I didn’t mind that they banded together to get PAID. NBC was making buckets of money on them, and if it’s one thing I respect is that people need to get paid for their work (yes, even NPH in those stupid Smurfs movies). I didn’t mind a lot of things about Friends, but ultimately, I just didn’t think it was that funny. That was its number one crime for me. Don’t get me wrong, I would chuckle a bit here and there, but I certainly didn’t think it lived up to the hype. I didn’t understand why the whole country seemed to be obsessed with Ross and Rachel (and that haircut). I was living in NYC at the time and those apartments seemed like a farce (and, yes, I know it’s make believe, but it was beyond). Put that all together with the fact that I think Phoebe and those stupid songs were the worst part of the show, and you get a pretty intense low grade hatred for Lisa Kudrow. Which I now deeply regret.

When The Comeback first came out, I remember thinking that it was an interesting conceit. I may have watched a few minutes of it at some point, but I wasn’t that interested in it…and I couldn’t get past my blind hatred. I admit it, I went racist for Lisa Kudrow. As the years passed, I kept hearing how people had loved that show, I encountered Lisa Kudrow in podcasts and other interviews, and I thought, well, there’s something here that I’m clearly not seeing. When The Comeback came back this fall, 10 years after its first season, I decided to give it a try, so I binge watched the first season and caught up to the second one.

I am not one of those people who is prone to saying that shows, books, art is ahead of its time…unless I’m writing an academic article or book about something and history kind of proves me right. I heard some people say that the reason that The Comeback was not picked up when it first came out was because it was ahead of its time. After watching all episodes, I’m going to have to completely agree. See, the thing is that The Comeback anticipated a lot of reality TV, especially the Housewives franchise, and yet it’s hard to see its brilliance without having been acquainted with the many shows that it parodies that came AFTER it. This show was analyzing in many ways what was to come and laughing at it, but that hadn’t come to pass yet. In some ways, that show inspired a lot of people in Hollywood who got the idea to put more fame whores on TV…thus creating its own predicate. In other words, it generated its own genre, but it was hard to see it as the precursor that it was because we didn’t know that version of the genre yet. AND we didn’t know how the show was exposing the fissures to that “reality.”

I write above that The Comeback is a parody, and it is. But it is much more than that. Or, perhaps, extremely good parodies (all extremely good art) transcend their own niche. I say this because what we get from the show is a delicious parody of the TV business — a very meta parody that sucks even HBO into it in the second season — and also a wonderful treatment of character that portrays Valerie Cherish as nuanced, complicated, and very human, at the same time that she is clueless. I mean, Valerie Cherish is Paris-Hilton smart: she knows her business inside out and can navigate those waters in surprisingly savvy ways but beyond that world there is no there there. She is as equally shallow as she is brimming with emotions, experiences, and insights. So on the one hand, you have a parodying world, yet on the other, you get  a fully fleshed character rapidly approaching the truly human. Those two things don’t usually coincide in such a wonderful combination–they hardly ever do.

Of course, all of this happens because of the great writing, and Lisa Kudrow’s INCREDIBLE performances. With very few words and expressions, Kudrow communicates to the viewers the emotional journeys and foibles that Valerie is going through. The depth and joy of her performance is, well, it’s fucking deep! I particularly like the fact that the Cherish character often stumbles into being a better actress than she realizes and is often surprised by the fact that she does have talent, and that oftentimes what derails her career is that she, or the industry, gets in the way of it. I would think that this is a lesson that all actors should take to heart. But this dynamic is paralleled by Kudrow’s performance: Kudrow puts on display the fact that she’s got this, that people like me who underestimated her were always wrong because she has range and brilliance. She easily portrays the complexity of the Cherish character, but then has to “act” Cherish’s interesting and pretty unconscious acting (I mean unconscious in the sense that it seems like Valerie is approaching acting like a technician: hitting her mark, learning and delivering her lines, evoking the right emotion for the scene; she is not overthinking the acting, not finding the “soul.” All of which seems like a recipe for good acting–a point of view that I can’t claim, I got it from Alec Baldwin in one of his podcasts).


Agreed, Mickey!

Agreed, Mickey!


I can’t believe I’m going to do this–and, really, who the fuck am I?–but I am going to give Lisa Kudrow the highest compliment I can give anyone: I’m going to give her credit for performing what to me seems like our age’s Don Quijote (that was the compliment….I’m a literature nerd, and I’m sticking to it!). So, dear Lisa Kudrow: your work on The Comeback is amazing. You really do deserve ALL OF THE EMMYS AND THE OSCARS AND THE GOLDEN GLOBES AND THE EVERYTHINGS. So that means that I’ve gone straight for Lisa Kudrow? Um, well, that’s a bit hyperbolic…but close.

Originally published on 2 Jan 2015


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